15 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from 5 Years Living Abroad

Phew, Five years – that’s easily said.

I first moved abroad when I was at University. Deciding to study European Business Management meant that half of my time would be spent abroad. For me, abroad was Germany – a country that felt so close and yet so different to me! At first, I wasn’t identified – I had a German surname and a German passport, and yet still, I had far too many grammatical mistakes to be a local. Soon, I was grouped with the rest of the Spaniards. During this time, I took the chance to do a 6 months internship in Z├╝rich, Switzerland. I loved the city, the landscapes and the people I worked with and always promised myself I would return some day… After graduating from my Master degree in Madrid, that opportunity came back to me: I had an offer to move back to Switzerland – this time, Lausanne. Even though it was hard to adapt to at the beginning, I fell head over heels with this lakeside city, its views over the french Alps and nearby vineyards. After two years, time had come to move on. And here I am, just celebrating the end of my 5th year abroad, from London.

View over Beijing, China

So for this 5 year anniversary, I’ve prepared a list of 15 life lessons I’ve learned (some of them, the hard way).

Here we go.

  1. Ask questions. I used to be the sort of person at school that hoped for someone else to raise my question, or otherwise, ask after class to avoid possible embarrassment. The thing is: there is no reason to be embarrassed – There is really no such thing as a stupid question.
  2. Follow your gut. Whenever confronted with a decision that has to be made: follow your instinct. Something that doesn’t feel right is certainly wrong.
  3. If others think your ideas are crazy, then you must be on the right track. Not everyone will understand your choices and support your ideas. Don’t ever let this pull you down. The only reason to quit is because you feel it’s the right choice – not because others don’t believe in your dream.
  4. Do it, even if you don’t get paid for it. Getting paid to doing what you want is great, but very often you’ll have to start doing it, as I would say, por amor al arte (literally meaning for the love of art, or fun the fun of it).
  5. It’s OK to fail. You don’t have to be right the first time. You can be right the second. The third. Failures provide us with great learning experiences and prepare us for our big success. Never stop doing something because you’re afraid to fail – remember: the secret of winning is playing often.
  6. The most interesting experiences usually happen when you get off the beaten path. In your career and while traveling, it’s good and comfortable to have a plan – but always be ready to get off that plan whenever it feels right, as the best is waiting for you somewhere completely unexpected.
  7. Your reputation is the most valuable asset. After quitting your job or graduating from Uni, you might feel like throwing a nasty email to your boss or that competitive class mate, but this will never pay off enough to cover the huge hole you’re creating in your reputation. They say never burn the bridges. You never know when or where you’ll meet them again.
  8. You choose the way you view the World around you. A swiss village can be dead boring or incredibly charming. London can be too crowded or full of buzz. It is all in the eyes of the viewer.
  9. Laugh. Often. Laughter is the best medicine. Surround yourself with people who will make you laugh out loud and cry of happiness. I’m pretty sure you’ll have less wrinkles and live longer.
  10. Languages are a virtue. Languages take you to places. Today, it’s quite common to see job offers asking the candidate to be able to write and speak a second language – sometimes even a third. Even when english is widely spoken, languages are very much appreciated and will open many doors!
  11. Stereotypes are only that: stereotypes. We’ve all heard about them. Spaniards always sleep siestas. The swiss clockwork punctuality. German’s don’t joke and all Latin-Americans dance. Well let me tell you something: I know Spaniards that don’t take naps, swiss that were late and germans that made me pee in my pants. Oh, and I’ve also met an awful lot of Latin-Americans that can’t dance! Always keep an open mind.
  12. You’re not as different as you think from everyone else. As soon as I started to tell people who I was quitting finance to move into events, I started to realize that so many others are on their second life or have a dream career they’d love to approach. Finding something in common with someone is much easier than you think.
  13. Learn to enjoy your own company. Do activities by yourself. Immerse in a book, go for a walk/run, visit an exhibition. Travel! Don’t wait for others to join your plan, otherwise, you’ll never do it.
  14. Stop checking your phone when you’re with other people. Seriously, I can’t think of anything more disturbing and disrespectful than sitting with friends or colleagues and realizing everyone is more engaged in their online life than in what is happening right here right now.
  15. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Time is precious, so think about you really want to do, prioritize and do it.

What valuable lessons have you learned, living abroad?

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14 Responses to “15 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from 5 Years Living Abroad”

  1. ZhuSeptember 30, 2012 at 3:59 AM #

    Very inspirational and oh-so-true! I like the “it’s okay to fail”, because it is okay, really. Being an expat, a traveler or an immigrant is about trying on new lives and none all of them will fit.

    I’m tweeting you :-)

    • KatherinaSeptember 30, 2012 at 10:00 AM #

      I love that one too, “it’s ok to fail”… it also means that, when you’re learning a new language, you’re going to be a mess at first… it’s really just about practicing as much as you can. Hence, “the secret of winning is playing often”

      Thanks for the tweet!! :)

  2. MeriOctober 1, 2012 at 3:22 AM #

    Looks like you’ve learned a lot! Living abroad taught me to value my relationships from back home, and while I might meet a lot of people who could end up being great friends too, that there were people who are always there for me, and how to tell the difference.

    • KatherinaOctober 7, 2012 at 10:06 AM #

      That’s a good one, too – Moving abroad puts your friendships on a test and the real good ones will survive any storms!

  3. Nomadic SamuelOctober 3, 2012 at 2:41 PM #

    First off, congratulations on 5 years! I just entered my 7th consecutive year and it’s been a blast. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying but point number 6 really resonates with me more than any other: The most interesting experiences usually happen when you get off the beaten path.

    • KatherinaOctober 7, 2012 at 10:07 AM #

      Thanks Samuel! Wow, 7 years! I this time has brought you to many unexpected and off-the-path places as well :)

  4. MargyleOctober 5, 2012 at 2:45 PM #

    I think the ‘learn to enjoy your own company’ point is huge – too many people can’t do that and that’s what keeps them from truly being content. It takes practice and it isn’t easy! Congrats on the 5 years – keep fighting the good fight!

    • KatherinaOctober 7, 2012 at 10:09 AM #

      I think moving abroad sort of forces you to learn to enjoy your own company, after all, you leave behind all your friends and family… you become more independent!

  5. The Martha from Malta DiaryOctober 5, 2012 at 4:32 PM #

    I’ve never lived abroad but I know that your words are so true. Seeing everything written down makes so much more sense. My philosophy in life is to well LIVE. I am a very positive person, and although I do not exactly know what I am going to do career-wise I know what I love. I love cultures, travelling, learning new languages. I love food. I love to laugh. I come from a very very small country and I guess I have learnt these valuable lessons particularly because I live in such a country. I long to see the world, my country is very beautiful but the world is so big, so diverse and my biggest goal is seeing all of it. Maybe too ambitious? Well I will hold on to my dream :)

    • KatherinaOctober 7, 2012 at 10:14 AM #

      No dream is too big, Martha ;)

  6. PamelaOctober 7, 2012 at 4:07 PM #

    All those are very useful and wise points, thank you for the reminder :)

  7. larkOctober 24, 2012 at 12:57 AM #

    this is so true. dreams,guts,enjoying your own company allows inner peace. and meeting new people has humbled me.

  8. La Viajera MorenaNovember 22, 2012 at 3:16 AM #

    Such a true article, loved this part especially “Languages are a virtue. Languages take you to places…” I am trying to hop on that ‘become fluent in 3 months’ bandwagon. Would love to know at least 5 languages fluently in the next 5 years!

  9. JamesHarlanJanuary 29, 2013 at 6:28 AM #

    YOu’re so kind to share these important life’s lessons. You just don’t know how these 15 life lessons you’ve shared will guide some of us who look for an active and colorful life.
    JamesHarlan recently posted..Writing Poor Mathematics Essays

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